Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History

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Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History. By Melissa Walker. New Directions in Southern History. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. 324 pp. Cloth: $45.00, ISBN 978-0813124094.)

Scholars have made research and writing about the South a major industry. Methodologies and topics have been numerous, and one might ask: "What is left to study?" in addition to "what might be the approach?" Melissa Walker shows that much more can be done, especially if the studies are based on oral history. This study of southern agriculture rests on the stories farm men and women have told about their lives on the land, and it provides new insight into the rural South. Walker ranks among the leading oral historians today. Her keen analysis gives meaning, clarity, and substance to this work - far beyond more traditional forms of oral history, where stories often appear as simple block quotes. She bases her study on sociological theory. However, Walker is not a theoretical ideologue, and she astutely refuses to crib the evidence simply to support a theory. Often she cogently notes the failure of theory to explain certain situations or events and instead offers her own analysis.

Walker's book provides a case study about the manner in which ordinary rural Southerners construct and use memory to give meaning to their lives and the past. To do so, she uses memory as a category of cultural and historical analysis, in order to understand the process of change in everyday rural life during the twentieth century. She contends that by telling stories, rural Southerners created communities of memory that emerged over time. These communities of memory, or shared experiences, bind rural Southerners across economic and class lines, but they are not monolithic. Walker's communities of memory are fragmented by race, class, and gender, but those communities recognize similar acceptable standards of social behavior, values, and traditions. Walker is particularly interested in the ways that individuals use memories to give meaning to life-transforming experiences, which, in turn, create a sense of shared history and identity. She cautions that communities of memory are not homogeneous and that collective memory can be problematic. Walker also shows the ways rural societies used memory to connect personal experiences to regional, national, and world historical contexts. Rural Southerners, Walker found, used their experiences to separate themselves from people who had not lived on the land. Subsistence production, self-sufficiency, and farming skills created a community of memory that made these men and women different and, in their opinion, better than city people. Often, however, rural Southerners recalled making choices when in reality circumstances determined their actions. In many respects, Walker's narrators unknowingly revealed lives driven by a lack of alternatives, and by desperation as well as hope and satisfaction.

This is a remarkable, new story about the effects of technology, land ownership (or the lack of it), and government policy in the mral South. …